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Spaying and neutering can be contentious subjects among dog and cat lovers. The issue can inspire passionate, almost religious fervor among the legions of veterinarians, shelter workers, and rescue organization members who deal on a daily basis with the hoards of unwanted cats and dogs that our society produces. A much smaller number of very vocal people are fervently opposed to spaying and neutering.
I always have tried to avoid ideology when discussing the subject on the Vet Blog. I try to keep an open mind and a level head about spaying and neutering. The subjects have been covered many times on this blog, and I have received unfavorable comments from representatives of both sides on the debate — so I believe I’ve generally done a good job of being fair.
The subject came up, and sparked debate, on the Vet Blog when I suggested that spaying and neutering animals was a good way to save money on vet bills. It did not take long for some commenters to suggest that I was engaging in blind support for spaying and neutering without considering the downsides to the procedures (many commenters evidently weren’t reading during the times in the past that I have been accused of “giving ammunition to anti-spay/neuter activists”).
One commenter, named Diana, asked the following:
Im knee-deep in the spay/neuter debate and I own an intact male dog. All of my peer-reviewed research has led me to the idea that neutering isnt the best if you can contain your male. Can you comment on the pro/con lists of neutering a male dog?
When I read this, I thought that all I would need to do was search the blog in order to provide a link to the answer. To my surprise, however, I found that although I had covered the risks and benefits of spays, I had never directly covered the subject of neuters. It is time to give males their due.
Let me say this first: there is no doubt that neutering is good for dogs and cats as a whole. Any person who doubts this should spend some time working at their local non-no-kill shelter. After you watch a few hundred healthy animals get put to sleep because nobody wants them, you will agree.
However, this post is not intended to answer the question of what’s best for dogs and cats in general. Its purpose is to answer a different question: is neutering the best thing for your dog or cat?
Let’s start with cats, because the answer is simpler.
Here are some benefits of neutering male cats. They are less likely to roam, spray, fight, contract FIV/feline AIDS, and escape the house and get lost or hit by cars. They generally are more docile and more friendly and more suitable as pets. They do not produce a tomcat odor.
Here are some common downsides to neutering cats. There are more likely to be obese, they may suffer pain after castration, and they are at (very slight) risk of complications from anesthesia during castration. Intact male cats also have a strikingly handsome, masculine appearance.
No doubt, there are hosts of other risks and benefits to neutering of male cats. However, to my knowledge the subject hasn’t been studied very intensely because most people simply cannot stand to have intact male cats for pets. The spraying, combined with the tomcat odor (which sometimes can be smelled from 50 feet away) is insufferable for most pet owners. Most owned cats, with the exception of purebred studs, are neutered because there is no other way for their owners to live with them.
The story with dogs, however, is different. Intact male dogs don’t produce an especially repugnant odor, and they aren’t especially likely to urinate in the house. Many people own intact male dogs, and I am aware of larger bodies of evidence both for and against neutering dogs.
Let’s start with the pros. Neutered dogs are less likely to be involved in fights. They are less likely to escape from the house and get lost or hit by cars while in search of trysts. They cannot develop testicular cancer, they almost never develop prostatitis, their risk of sexually transmitted disease and injuries sustained during intercourse is nil, they are at reduced risk of perianal fistulas, and they are less likely to engage in unwanted behaviors such as leg humping. Most people find neutered dogs more aesthetically pleasing — there aren’t many sane people who are pleased to have a pair of dog testicles in their field of view.
Here are some cons to neutering dogs. Neutered dogs are more likely to be obese. Dogs are at risk of pain or, very rarely, anesthetic complications during and after surgery. Neutered dogs, and especially those neutered before maturity, appear to be at increased risk of certain types of cancer including prostate cancer, bone cancer, a blood vessel cancer called hemangiosarcoma, and bladder cancer. Neutered dogs may be more prone to hypothyroidism. Some dogs, when neutered before maturity, may be at increased risk of cruciate ligament injury. Dogs neutered after maturity may experience behavior changes. Finally, some people, especially macho types, like their dogs to have the masculine appearance that only large quantities of testosterone can provide.
Let’s put some of this into perspective. Some of the factors above, such as anesthetic complications (when anesthesia is performed competently), bladder cancer, and prostate cancer are so rare in dogs that they should not really count as factors when deciding whether to neuter your dog. Some, such as prostatitis, testicular cancer, and hypothyroidism, rarely are life threatening. Others, such as cruciate ligament injury, are risk factors only in dogs that are neutered before maturity. Surgical pain is preventable. And if you’re looking to your dog to bolster your manhood, then you’re focusing on the wrong pair of testicles.
Most people find the behavior changes that sometimes occur after neutering to be good things. Who among us enjoys having his or her leg humped? That said, neutering does not inevitably lead to a reduction in unwanted behaviors, and goodness knows my leg has been violated by every type of dog — male, female, intact, spayed and neutered.
Getting lost and getting into fights are horribly common. Obesity is common. Bone cancer and hemangiosarcoma aren’t common, but they’re not rare enough for my taste. How should these risks be prioritized?
Nobody can answer the above question with certainty, but on the whole I believe that neutering is in the best interest of a large majority of dogs. That said, if you are able to keep your dog contained, and willing to invest the necessary time to train and socialize him, then the benefits of neutering are not foregone conclusions. The only true answer is that nobody knows for sure what’s best. Meanwhile, it is up to you to decide.